NASSAU — Sunday, Southwest Airlines celebrated the opening of its newest international gateway airport at its Ft. Lauderdale / Hollywood (FLL) focus city with a daily round-trip flight to Nassau, Bahamas doing the honors.
The airline is initially starting off modestly with the service to Nassau, followed by Santa Clara, Varadero, and Havana, Cuba services beginning before year’s end.
Southwest’s international flights out of Ft. Lauderdale will sharply escalate with the 2nd quarter 2017 opening of the new five-gate International Concourse A of FLL’s Terminal 1. Though no additional destinations have been announced just yet, Ft. Lauderdale is destined to join Houston Hobby, Baltimore, and Los Angeles as a key focus gateway city, targeting the Caribbean, Central America, and eventually South America.
Southwest currently terms its international services “12 for 12” according to Evan Berg, Sr. Manager of International Planning in the Business Development Department, “We have 12 U.S. gateway cities to 12 cities in Latin America and the Caribbean, including San Juan.”
Southwest is now North America’s largest growing airline in terms of international destinations, with more than 100 flights operating on peak days such as Saturdays.
Though AirTran operated international flights prior to Southwest purchasing it in 2010 and completing the integration in 2014, Southwest’s dedicated international flights began just over two years ago with service from Baltimore, Atlanta, and Orlando to Aruba, Montego Bay Jamaica, and Nassau.
The selection of Ft. Lauderdale as Southwest international gateway on its 20th anniversary of service into the airport is no coincidence. In a press conference, Mark Gale, CEO, Broward County Director of Aviation quipped “I am quoting one of my favorite artists when I say. What’s LUV got to do with it? I am talking Southwest Love! They began service here 20 years ago with a couple of flights to Tampa. Since then, over 550 million passengers have traveled through Ft. Lauderdale / Hollywood on 500,000 flights on Southwest and we want more!”
And indeed he is already getting his wish, as Southwest is ramping up to 70 departures to 29 destinations from Ft. Lauderdale, including the just announced Newark and coming Cuban flights.
Steve Goldberg, Southwest’s VP/Ground Ops who served as a station manager in Ft. Lauderdale earlier in his career enthusiastically promoted the international build up “This is just the beginning of international service at Ft Lauderdale. Our $295 million five-gate Federal Inspection Station (FIS) concourse with a dedicated Customs and Border Protection facility will not only offer upgraded amenities, but a centralized dedicated check-in for Southwest flights.”
Though Broward County is paying for the project, Southwest is overseeing construction of the new concourse.
The LUV airline enters a crowded, hotly contested market at Ft. Lauderdale, where Southwest is number two in terms of market share, slightly behind JetBlue and just ahead of locally based ULCC Spirit.
At Fort Lauderdale, Spirit and JetBlue already have long established Caribbean and Latin America links. Indeed, JetBlue is targeting an increase to 150 flights per day with a huge international expansion at Ft. Lauderdale, which has become one of its top performing markets with only New York JFK and Boston on par with it.
And of course, American Airlines just 20 miles to the South in Miami is the dominant airline into the Caribbean and Latin America.
So why is Southwest entering this heavily competitive fray and is it late to the party?
Goldberg admits it’s a competitive market but says Southwest is unbowed, “When you think about Fort Lauderdale, we are aware of the competitive landscape. But when you think about Fort Lauderdale’s geographical location, position, as well at the traffic base and our relatively size and scale in Florida it seems like an ideal location to grow our business beyond the U.S. marketplace with additional capacity to the south. Fort Lauderdale has traditionally been an end-point in our system, meaning a real origination and destination market. Expanding beyond that allows us to grow not only the Fort Lauderdale customer base but traffic from the northeast, the Midwest and even the southeast beyond Fort Lauderdale to the Caribbean, Latin America and Mexico.” The airline is already reporting load factors at high 80’s on average for the new route.
Southwest is relentlessly running marketing and promotion in the South Florida local market, which Goldberg says is a bit different strategy than some of its other gateway markets “I’d say primarily we are focused on the local South Florida customer. We will have a strong component of O&D in the local market as is evident how other carriers are performing in the market as well. Fort Lauderdale has a stronger local base on which to build local traffic versus Houston, which is a little more mixed in terms O&D versus connecting.”
Southwest also points to an advantage in the Bahamian market that due to the high cost on the island, local Bahamians do much of their shopping on the mainland. Southwest’s customer friendly Bags Fly Free policy will win favor in the local market.
Southwest is being guarded with its international expansion plans at Ft Lauderdale and beyond, but clearly the coming Boeing 737 MAX offers opportunities. Goldberg allows “We believe the range will allow us to go deeper into Latin America. Anything within the 737 aircraft range is on the table for evaluation and consideration for service in the future. We are looking at just inside that range, the opportunity for expansion to at least 50 cities. We’re not going to open all the cities overnight but we are looking at creating opportunity.”
Nassau is among the most competitive of international markets in South Florida with JetBlue, Silver, American, SkyBahamas and Bahamasair already offering high frequencies.
Nassau is a fairly obvious choice for Southwest to dip its heart shaped toe into the international market for one reason in particular. As when Southwest soft launched international services to Aruba from Hobby before HOU’s international concourse opened, Nassau offers CPB pre-clearance, allowing arriving Nassau flights to operate into the current Terminal 1 concourses before the opening of the FIS at Concourse A.
Cuban flights however, will have to operate temporarily out of FLL’s International Terminal 4, as these must begin 90 days after the DOT’s award.
After a tumultuous few weeks punctuated by the PSS meltdown leading to severe service disruptions, management versus union labor discord, and a particularly rough 2nd quarter earnings call which contributed to a precipitous drop in the stock price, Southwest needed to blow off some steam.
The Inaugural Flight
The LUV airline is legendary for loving a good party, and for its Bahamas inaugural, they pulled out all the stops.
Southwest’s Gate 3 at Ft. Lauderdale Airport, likely chosen for its proximity to the new International Concourse A was transformed into a Bahamian street party. On a Sunday morning, the check-in desks packed gate area were festooned with Bahamian flags, balloons, and streamers.
Local favorites rum cake and Goombay Punch were served up. But what really lit up the scene was a loud, funky, and spirited multi-piece Bahamian Junkanoo band that paraded from the gate through the entire Concourse B. The Carnival like scene was as lively as it was loud – with passengers not only snapping selfies but joining in on the parade.
Southwest invited its three Bahamian Fort Lauderdale-based employees on the inaugural flight to share in the festivities. Dwayne Young, Sr, a long-time ramp agent with Southwest was visibly moved: “This is a beautiful thing. It’s good for the Bahamian nation. It gives our people the Southwest flavor that jives with the Bahamian culture of fun. I have goose bumps.”
Sean Smith, a Houston-based captain and Nassau native was chosen to fly the inaugural to his hometown. Smith was met at the gate in Nassau by his mother Joyce Bannister “I am elated that my son bought Southwest to Bahamas. I am seeing this and it’s a life highlight. To come here and connect with where he presently lives to where he once lived is phenomenal.”
Onboard the 100% filled to capacity 737-700 mostly with revenue passengers who were initially unaware this was an inaugural, there was limited time to party with less then 30 minutes in the air. Ft. Lauderdale – Nassau is the 4th shortest flight in the system. As an aside, Grand Rapids to Chicago is the shortest. But party they did, after the water cannon salutes, passengers donned sunglasses and Bahamian flags and everything was indeed ‘ire!
Compared to many inaugurals, this one was indeed a big happening beyond the aviation community. Bahamian dignitaries met each passenger at the gate at Nassau Lynden Pindling Airport’s stunning relatively new international arrivals terminal.
At a press conference on the ground, Honorable Obediah H. Wilchombe, Bahamas Minister of Tourism couldn’t resist pitching Southwest for additional service to the Bahamas. “It was 4 years ago when I was in Texas and we discussed the possibility of southwest serving the Bahamas. Today is very important to our country. Now, we want to make sure we introduce you to other destinations in the Bahamas like Grand Bahama.”
The Caribbean and Latin America may be considered laid back and leisurely. But with the entrance of Southwest into these uber competitive South Florida connected markets, this competition is guaranteed to be anything but laid back.